Daily TWiP Archives

Something interesting has happened on (just about) every day of the year, and Daily TWiP provides the proof. An offshoot of my local events column The Week in Preview (affectionately known as TWiP), Daily TWiP was published April 2008-Aug. 2011 and is still giving readers reasons to celebrate.

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Daily TWiP – Sept. 17, 1859: Joshua A. Norton declares himself Emperor of the United States

If the job you want doesn’t exist, it may be up to you to create it. Bankrupt businessman Joshua Abraham Norton of San Francisco did just that when he proclaimed himself Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, on Sept. 17, 1859.

Norton was initially a successful businessman, amassing a fortune of $250,000 thanks to his savvy approach to real estate, but he lost every penny of it in an ill-fated attempt to corner the rice market. The sudden loss of his finances apparently took a toll on his mental state and he disappeared from San Francisco for several years. Upon his return to the city, he declared himself Emperor of the United States.

Rather than locking Norton up and throwing away the key, the people of San Francisco embraced him. He became a prominent local figure, dining regularly at fine restaurants (which subsequently installed plaques beside their doors that said “By Appointment to his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Norton I of the United States”) and receiving complimentary theater tickets for himself and his retinue (two stray dogs named Lazarus and Bummer). Norton even issued his own currency, which was locally accepted.

Several years into Norton’s reign, a zealous young police officer attempted to take Norton into custody and have him treated for mental illness. The public was outraged. Police Chief Patrick Crowley immediately had Norton released and issued a formal apology. Norton responded by granting the clueless young officer an imperial pardon. After this incident, San Francisco police officers would salute Norton whenever they encountered him.

Norton didn’t simply rest on his laurels, enjoying the privileges that came with his position as a monarch; he took an active interest in the affairs of his empire, issuing a number of proclamations. Through his proclamations, he dissolved the United States of America (there’s no need for a republic when you have an emperor), abolished the Republican and Democratic parties for failure to get along, and decreed that a suspension bridge be built from Oakland Point to Goat Island, then on to San Francisco.

Most of his proclamations were ignored – the United States has not been dissolved, and neither have the still-bickering Republican and Democratic parties – but the idea of such a bridge had been debated for some time and this particular proclamation received a great deal of public support. Construction finally began on the bridge (now known as the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge) in 1933. Although Norton didn’t live to see this event, we’re sure it would have met with his imperial approval.

Norton collapsed unexpectedly on a street corner Jan. 8, 1880, and died before medical assistance could arrive. He was initially slated for a pauper’s burial in a plain redwood casket, but members of the Pacific Club, an association for San Francisco businessmen, raised funds for a much nicer rosewood casket and a dignified funeral. As many as 30,000 people were reported to have paid their respects to the United States’ best loved self-proclaimed monarch.

– Teresa Santoski


Originally published Sept. 17, 2009.

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